Monday, August 13, 2012

Safari in Sandakan


Wild or domesticated, animals fascinate us. We love watching them. They make popular subjects for both nature films and documentaries.

In 1920, pioneer Hollywood filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson, an American couple from Kansas, came to Sabah, then British North Borneo, to film the wildlife on the east coast.

They explored then unknown lands and brought back knowledge of cultures thousands of miles away through their films, writings and lectures.

Fifteen years after they left Sabah, the Johnsons decided to return in 1935. With better equipment and many years of experience filming wildlife in Africa, Martin Johnson felt he could now truly capture and portray Borneo in all its glory.

When I was in Sandakan recently, I had the opportunity to see an amazing collection of photos at the "Safari in Sandakan" exhibit in the Sandakan Heritage Museum. Dedicated to Martin and Osa Johnson, the images are invaluable documentation of Sabah's natural history, ethnography and history of that period and gave it an early edge as an eco-tourist destination.

The Johnsons had used two amphibious planes in Africa and brought one to Borneo, renaming it "Spirit of Africa and Borneo", an S-39 Sikorsky amphibian. Leaving Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) for Sandakan, they used the plane to select a base camp which was near the small village of Abai on the Kinabatangan River, and named it "Johnsonville". Several large gobangs or canoes were procured and a Chinese junk, with full crew, also joined in the expedition.

The expedition saw the Johnsons travelling over rapids a mile beyond Pinangah, a remote government station, and then on foot safari to Tenggara territory. They spent much of their time among the riverine communities and habitats of the Kinabatangan River and filmed numerous primates of Borneo.

From this expedition, their finest motion picture "Borneo" was made. The Johnsons took 3,000 photos and made over 150,000 feet of film. Their images of orang utans, proboscis monkeys, tarsiers, slow loris and elephants in the Kinabatangan together with friendly tattooed natives in loin cloths were the first that Western audiences saw when screened in cinemas.

One of their shots of an adult male proboscis monkey was so striking that it was selected for reproduction on a North Borneo postage stamp. It went through five issues: the State of North Borneo in 1939, then two Japanese overprints during the occupation, next a British military overprint and finally in 1947 representing North Borneo as a British Crown Colony

Leaving Borneo in 1936, the Johnsons gave copies of all their photos to the government, hoping that they would be preserved as a record of the untouched haven they saw vanishing before their eyes. World War II, however, destroyed all but a handful of these images.

In 2004, the Sabah Museum and the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas won an International Partnership among Museums Exchange Grant and digital images of the 2,700 original photos taken by the Johnsons housed in the Safari Museum were made available to the Sabah Museum for educational and exhibition purposes.

On February 22, 2011, the Sabah Museum opened its "Safari in Sandakan" exhibit which covers the Johnsons' 1920 and 1935-1936 Borneo expeditions. Their collection is currently on display at the exhibition galleries of the Sandakan Heritage Museum and will run until December 31, 2012.

Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin